[Note: as this play almost exclusively caters to fans of the Re-Animator film, it will contain some SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen the film, go fucking watch it immediately. You owe it to yourself.]
Back in 1998 I was visiting a friend at his college and he informed me that some students had written and were performing a musical based on the movie Species. Such an idea was almost too deliriously genius for me to comprehend. Several years after that, a couple of my own friends put on a Jaws musical. It was amazing. Since then the conversion of films into comedy musicals – be they legit Broadway shows, or off-Broadway fringe material – has become commonplace, especially with ironic and inappropriate source material. With Youtube and FunnyorDie the gag-musical has been resoundingly beaten into the ground (although I’m still getting a kick out of that Arnold musical series). From an ironic vantage point, horror properties are an especially fun genre to goof into a musical. And though I’ve heard decent things about the Evil Dead musical, I was still feeling a bit burnt by the disappointment that was Cronenberg’s The Fly opera when I first heard about Re-Animator The Musical – running through March 27th at the Steve Allen Theater in Los Angeles; Fridays through Sundays at 8 p.m.
The idea of some 20something sketch comic hipsters goofing on Re-Animator for over an hour didn’t seem particularly appealing. That’s when I actually read the play’s credits. Not only was the play’s book by Re-Animator screenwriting team Dennis Paoli, William Norris, and Stuart Gordon, but Gordon was directing the project himself. I went from rolling my eyes to arranging a press pass within seconds.
Even though my hopes had been raised, I still walked out of the musical surprised. It is nothing short of a balls-to-the-wall blast.
I suppose all musicals are first judged by their music. While I didn’t leave the theater humming any of the tunes, the songs – written by Mark Nutter; with a lot of influences from Richard Band’s film score – were all funny and highly enjoyable. But the play’s general presentation was the real star of the show. The Steve Allen Theater is an incredibly laid back venue, and not particularly large either (“intimate” I guess is the positive way to say that). Gordon fully embraced this aesthetic, giving the play a knowingly low-rent feeling. The music all comes from a single performer on a keyboard (though he does quite a lot with that keyboard), and there is one single set made up of a wall and a doorway. Gordon worked as a stage director for almost twenty years before he jumped into films (notably staging one of the first productions of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and getting arrested on obscenity charges for a counter-culture version of Peter Pan). So Gordon knows his way around a stage.
The way Gordon uses the space – namely the one wall and doorway – is so simple it’s almost easy to miss how inventive it is. But this set up becomes every single location in the film, with the doorway doubling for windows and more. One of my favorite staging gags is towards the beginning of the play, when Gordon recreates the bedroom scene between Megan Halsey (Rachel Avery) and Dan Cain (Chris L. McKenna) by simply having the actors lean completely upright against a vertically constructed bed. Gordon and the actors have a lot of fun with this gimmick, as the two lovers get up from the bed and then pull each other back onto the covers (ie run and flop up against the wall with pillows and a sheet glued to it).
The actors are all wonderful and completely get the tone of play, possibly none more so than Jesse Merlin who fucking nails it as Dr. Hill. And to be perfectly honest, McKenna is actually more likable as Dan Cain than Bruce Abbott was in the film. The entire romance works better in silly musical form, when the two characters can blatantly vocalize their every feeling to each other. This seemingly small change actually has a pretty major effect on the overall production. The play follows the film’s script almost scene for scene, yet things feel different. The reason for this isn’t just that McKenna is a more likable Cain (it’s not like Abbott was actively bad or anything). But the play lacks the presence of Jeffery Combs. Graham Skipper gives a lively and able performance as Herbert West in the musical, but it is almost impossible to hold a candle to Combs’ twitchy and now legendary performance. The funny thing is that Combs was almost too good in the original film, from a story structure perspective. It’s easy to forget it now, but Dan Cain is the protagonist of Re-Animator. Herbert West has no arc and he dies during the climax. But the combination of Abbott’s average performance and the scenery chewing domination of Combs effectively makes West the central character. So, without changing the story, simply the cast, Re-Animator The Musical feels surprisingly fresh. It actually feels like the story of Dan Cain.
George Wendt (reteaming with Gordon from Space Truckers) is the lone star of the cast, and though the man isn’t looking super healthy these days (not that he ever looked healthy mind you), Wendt was clearly having a blast hamming it up as Dean Halsey. And even more fun hamming it up as a Swiss female nurse in the play’s opening scene.
Like everything else, the FX are all silly and knowingly cheap. Yet also completely effective. Again, the glowing green light of West’s re-animation agent plays an important visual role. And the decapitation scene with Dr. Hill was marvelously fun – as was Jesse Merlin’s performance inside the wheeled costume that made it appear as though he were a decapitated zomboid carrying his own singing head. There is a decent amount of gore in the play too, mainly in the second half, and the cast was very blantantly trying to get as much of it on the audience as possible. The theater has labeled the first row a “splash zone” but if you’re adverse to getting some fake blood-goo on you, I’d sit farther back than that actually. Also, for the perverts out there (you know who you are), if you want to see a bit of female nudity I’d sit as far to front left as possible.
The one major and undeniable drawback to Re-Animator The Musical is that it is so geared towards fans of the original film, that a good 45% of the jokes may prove completely incomprehensible to the uninitiated. While the musical is indeed telling a proper story there are a lot of winking in-jokes related to the film and specific lines issued to get a response from the audience. But I think that just means this is the perfect excuse to make your friends/girlfriend/wife finally watch Re-Animator, or to finally watch it yourself.